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Selecting from a salad bar of concepts
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 06/16/2008

Joe Bouchard is a librarian at Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility within the Michigan Department of Corrections. He is also a member of the Board of Experts for “The Corrections Professional” and an instructor of Corrections and Psychology for Gogebic Community College.

There is no doubt that corrections professionals perform a very important job. Every moment we are inside the walls, we face potential danger from many directions. Some of these are obvious while others are unobtrusive. We are responsible to keep ourselves and inmates safe. In addition, when we consider whom we are really working for, we need to consider the general public.

We understand the nuts and bolts of what we do on a daily basis. But how often do we see the higher purpose to our vocation? Certainly, most agencies have policies and procedures that shine the altruistic light of guiding principles.

These guiding principles frequently serve as visions of excellence that inspire us to not merely succeed in corrections, but also to excel. Concepts serve as the important framework for our daily activities.

Properly selecting our guiding principles is crucial because the statement of purpose is the defining document through which others will assess an agency’s philosophy. Choosing which components to include is not an easy task. However, it is always easier to add concepts than to remove them.

Our goal should be to avoid conceptual overload, which is the practice of presenting too many ideas in an insufficient amount of space. In fact, conceptual overload dilutes the impact of the chief ideas; compromises the chosen principles; and loses readers in a crowded maze of ideas. So, it is better to emphasize just a few concepts in detail.

Too much of a good thing, it is said, can ruin anything. This is true of a written policy that outlines a statement of purpose. For example, teamwork, fairness, honesty, leadership, and continuing education are just a few excellent ideas to aspire to.

There could be other favorites added to this. However, the more ideas that are added, the likelihood conceptual overload increases.

But how much is too much? Sometimes when we draft such policies, we are forced to deselect many altruistic concepts for the sake of avoiding conceptual overload. In other words, we must try to present our ideas in a brief, clear, and memorable way.

In fact, it is very much like making selections at a buffet or a salad bar. Filling your plate so that you are nearly sated but not overstuffed takes planning. Consider the following prudent writing guidelines.

An effective statement of purpose policy should be clear, brief, and memorable. Let’s apply the buffet theory to our writing guidelines.
  • Brief – People are more inclined to read a shorter document than a longer one. They know their limits on what they can digest. It is like going back for seconds at a buffet. You can go back again if you do not get too full on the first trip. Smaller portions keep one from getting intellectually bloated.

  • Clear – Lack of clarity in a statement of purpose happens when the reader is offered too much to choose from. The same is true at a salad bar. When we are faced with so many choices, we may become paralyzed by the cornucopia.

    Even if we like half of the many items on display, our plates simply cannot accommodate all that we want to sample. Most of the popular ideas are basic. Ideas with wide appeal will always facilitate a beautiful clarity. Esoteric or exotic language can make for an interesting read to some, but its use should be limited if it is not widely familiar.

  • Memorable – A concept-dense document may not necessarily be memorable. Just as you can over-encumber your plate at the buffet, you can overload your mission statement with excellent concepts.

    It is easier to remember four concepts than fifteen. In the same way, if you select four items from a buffet, you are more likely to remember the flavor of each item than if you quadrupled the selection. Too much will be ignored or rejected. Conceptual overload may lead to intellectual regurgitation.
To continue with the analogy, in order to fully savor a smaller number of choices, we might include extras that may seem good. But those things will ultimately get in the way of the simplicity of fewer quality items.

None of this is to suggest that we forever block new and additional concepts from our guiding principles. However, when we build a conceptual foundation for corrections success, less is often more. This is where prioritization is key.

We have so many groups that we are responsible to. Therefore, we must maintain equilibrium while performing our duties.

We accomplish this with our experiences, knowledge and training, and our conceptual foundation. Understanding the nature of concepts helps balance the gravity of our tasks. As strange as it sounds, it is very much like making wise choices at a salad bar or a buffet.

Other articles by Bouchard:

Safety and the possessed parrot, 5/12/08

Enjoy the Apocalypse, 4/21/08


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